Abolishing NCEA science

Dr Michael Johnston
ZB Plus
13 November, 2023

Every NCEA Level 1 assessment unit – the achievement standards – will be replaced from next year. The new standards were published last month. The Ministry of Education has been running workshops to brief teachers on their content.


Earlier this week, I heard from a disgruntled physics teacher who had attended one of these workshops with a colleague. Afterwards, she decided to take a job in a private school, where she will no longer have to teach NCEA courses. She commented that many teachers are concerned but don’t want to speak up for fear of repercussions. Her colleague has decided to resign from the teaching profession altogether.

What has upset these teachers so much?

The content of the new standards is much weaker than that of the old ones. Far less core scientific knowledge is specified.

In Year 11 – when students typically undertake NCEA Level 1 – most study general science rather than courses specifically in biology, chemistry, physics or earth science. These courses must cater to students intending to study science subjects in Year 12 and beyond, and those who will follow other paths. For the sake of the former – some of whom will become professional scientists – there must be enough basic theoretical knowledge in Year 11 courses to set them up for later success. The old science standards were not perfect, but they did a reasonable job of balancing the needs of these two types of students.

Key concepts in physics, chemistry, biology and earth science were covered for those going on in science. There were standards assessing mechanics, electromagnetism, acids and bases, chemical reactions, genetics, microorganisms, ecology, geological features and more.

For students not intending to go on to more specialist science study, many of the old Level 1 standards were couched in contexts designed to make them accessible. For example, one standard covered carbon compounds as fuels, and another, the use of metals in society.

One issue with the old standards is that there were a lot of them – 16 in all, totalling 64 credits. A typical Year 11 course would be assessed with just four or five. That left schools having to choose what to include and what to leave out. Still, it was possible to choose standards suitable for assessing a course that included the concepts students would need to progress in science.

The new standards for Level 1 general science are quite different. There are just four of them, so most Year 11 science courses will probably use them all.  This simplifies things for schools, but content coverage is seriously compromised.

In fact, all the key theoretical concepts are gone. The new standards place much more emphasis on the social impact of science than on science itself. One standard addresses science-informed responses to local issues. Another is about communicating scientific ideas. A third requires students to “describe features of science that have contributed to the development of a science idea in a local context.” The fourth standard is about investigative approaches in science.

None of these standards has any specific scientific content. The final one, on investigation, comes closest. It is worthwhile for students to learn about scientific methods of observation. Nonetheless, even this standard does not cover any theoretical knowledge, such as gravitation, atoms and molecules, or genetics. And the others are arguably more about social studies than science.

As well as the four new general science standards for NCEA Level 1, there are two sets of new standards for more specialist science courses – one set for chemistry and biology, and the other for physics and earth science. However, most students will study general science courses, and will not be assessed with these standards. And for those wanting to pursue further studies in science, even these more specialist standards will be inadequate.

The expansive range of content in the old set of standards has been greatly watered down. Furthermore, some new standards potentially conflate scientific knowledge with mythological ideas. One standard enjoins students to “explore how Māori, Pacific, or other Indigenous knowledges describe the interactions of the Sun and the Earth-Moon system.”

The difficulty is that Māori, Pacific, and other indigenous understandings of the natural world do not necessarily have any scientific basis. For example, according to a story from Māori mythology, rain is caused by Rona – a daughter of Tangaroa, the ocean god – tipping water over the earth from the moon.

Scientists must take a ruthlessly sceptical approach to knowledge. A scientific idea must be testable from observable data. Nothing is to be taken as true in a final sense. All scientific theories are subject to revision in the light of new evidence. In this way, scientific theories are the polar opposite of religious ideas, which are accepted on faith. It does not matter whether that faith is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or based in mātauranga Māori: If an idea cannot be tested with observational data and modified or discarded if it is found to be at odds with those data, it is not a scientific idea.

Don’t get me wrong. I love mythology – in fact, I revere it. I am certainly not in the business of belittling or making fun of anyone’s sacred beliefs. But sacred beliefs and stories, no matter how beautiful and meaningful, do not belong in science classrooms. Indeed, the separation of sacred and secular ideas during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries made science as we know it possible.

Once again, the incompetence of the Ministry of Education is threatening the future wellbeing of New Zealand. It is setting us up to be a scientific backwater. In its apparent quest to make science more relevant, the Ministry has effectively abolished science from the Year 11 curriculum.

To read the article on ZB Plus ($), click here.

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